More than anything else, the United States of America has become the land of the paradox. Its metaphorical pearly white gates are plastered with words like freedom, democracy, and hope, but past those gates, the U.S. is fueled by words like crime, terrorism, and punishment. Ava DuVernay’s recently released Netflix documentary, 13th, begins with a startling fact: the United States accounts for 5% of the world’s total population and 25% of the world’s prison inmates. Globally, there are about 10 million people in prison. 13th asserts that if we were to line up all of those prisoners, every fourth person would be an American.
13th is a documentary that Ava DuVernay filmed in semi-secrecy in between her many other projects (she’s also the creator of OWN show Queen Sugar and is currently shooting Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time). It sheds light on the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” This amendment effectively ended what we understood to be slavery, the period where white Americans kidnapped black people en masse and forced them to work on plantations and in homes for no money, while under the threat of extreme violence. What DuVernay’s documentary points out is that the 13th Amendment did not completely end slavery. Instead, it became the catalyst for slavery to evolve into something more sinister.
By the time the amendment was ratified in 1865, the U.S. south was wholly dependent on slave labor to fuel the economy. For the south, the loss of their entire workforce was devastating. They needed a way to bounce back and, uncreatively, came up with prison labor. Today, paying inmates pennies for their labor has become a number one way to ensure maximum profit. In fact, prison labor is estimated to garner $2 billion in profit per year. The 13th Amendment made it legal for state and private prisons to force their prisoners to work for low money under the threat of violence. But, how did they manage to amass prisoners in the first place?
DuVernay’s documentary mostly deals with the American government’s collusion with media to create the idea of a “criminal.” It describes how news and entertainment vilified black men and boys, and created the connotation that being black meant you were bound to be a criminal, and that being a criminal meant you were bound to be black. The documentary utilizes interviews from many influential activists including Angela Davis, who describes her own ordeal with the government and media. Similar to how the Black Lives Matter protest is received in mainstream media today, activists back then had to deal with the news painting them as dangerous for daring to question the status quo. It’s pointed out that when he was alive, American society did not like Martin Luther King, Jr.—they hated him. They hated him enough to kill him. Prominent Black Panthers were routinely harassed, run out of the country, and killed for speaking out. Angela Davis experienced similar harassment as the police tried to imprison her and take her to court on false charges. This is how outspoken activists were dealt with in the 1960s up until now. Regular black folk were also the target of “criminalization.” The infamous War on Drugs created thousands of criminals who are still in prison today. Bill Clinton’s 3-Strike Rule was an over-the-top response to violence in poor neighborhoods that even he admitted did harm. These are just a few of the topics discussed in 13th.
13th is a devastating and necessary documentary that puts into certain terms the injustice and inequality felt by black men in America. It pairs first person recounts of history and controversial interviews with gorgeous backdrops and painful archival pictures and video. 13th blows the United States’ paradoxical illusion of freedom and replaces it with stone cold reality. Like the many celebrities who have watched and been moved by this story, I believe 13th is required viewing for all citizens of the United States of America. Take a look at the movie trailer here https://youtu.be/V66F3WU2CKk
By Lilian Uzokwe